8 Best Parks in Washington, D.C.
Washington D.C. leads the pack when it comes to public parks, with over 20 percent of its area dedicated to green spaces and 98 percent of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park. Tourists can enjoy the beauty of the city's parks while getting sightseeing done along the district's most famous park, the National Mall, as well as around the neighboring Tidal Basin.
The majority of the district's green spaces are maintained by the National Park Service, including the expansive Rock Creek Park, Georgetown Waterfront Park, Dumbarton and Montrose Parks, and the Tidal Basin. In addition to the more typical city parks, D.C. is home to expansive green spaces, like the National Arboretum, that make visitors forget they are in the midst of an urban landscape.
With this many options it can be hard to know which to visit first, so find your starting point with our list of the best parks in Washington, D.C.
1. National Mall
A tourist could spend the better part of a day exploring the National Mall, the District of Columbia's most well-known green space and home to the most iconic D.C. monuments. Those who want to explore the entire park will want to start from the western end at the Lincoln Memorial, from which the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool can be properly admired.
After visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial just south of the pool, head to the other side to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before proceeding east through Kingscott Meadow and past the pond in Constitution Gardens.
At the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool stands the World War II Memorial with its series of somber columns standing guard around an oval fountain. Beyond here is the German-American Friendship Garden, which sits beneath the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument, and to the north sits the White House and its grounds, including the Ellipse. Although you may be able to approach the presidential residence, this large open space is often fenced off, and good photos of the building are difficult to get from this side.
The remainder of the Mall to the east of the monument is mostly open grass with wide pedestrian ways and a thin line of trees at each side, but it is the easiest way to reach the Smithsonian museums that sit in the park between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. Union Square sits at the easternmost end, with the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Capitol Building beyond.
Museums along the northern side of the Mall are the National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery of Art. On the opposite side of the green is Smithsonian Castle, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Other points of interest on and along the Mall include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, several excellent gardens, and the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory.
Official site: www.nps.gov/nama
2. Tidal Basin Loop Trail
The Tidal Basin is a man-made holding pool filled by the Potomac River as the tide rises, and then empties into the Washington Channel as the tide goes out, flushing the sediment in the channel to keep it clear for ships. Although fascinating engineering, the basin itself is not the main attraction, it is the numerous landmarks surrounding it that make it a top destination, especially during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Tidal Basin Loop Trail circles the water, with the path beginning and ending on the southern edge of the National Mall near the Washington Monument. Visitors start at the Japanese Lantern, a 350-year-old lantern made of granite that was a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo. Nearby is the site of the 1912 plantings – the first of the cherry trees that would become an iconic symbol of Washington D.C.
Next, tourists will approach the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which is actually a series of stunning monuments accompanied by reliefs and sculptures that commemorate the president's contributions to his country.
After passing the Japanese Pagoda and reading its comical origin, the next landmark is the Inlet Bridge, which passes over the gates that allow water to flow from the Potomac River into the basin. On the other side, the Jefferson Memorial is hard to miss, sitting within a massive Classical Roman rotunda.
After passing a copse of crab apple trees but just before the Outlet Bridge, tourists will find the Indicator Tree – an enigmatic cherry tree of unknown origin that dependably blooms about one week before the rest of the cherry trees, signaling the impending explosion of pink blossoms. Beyond, along the northeast side of the water, are more than 2,500 Yoshino cherry trees that comprise the majority of the park's trees.
Beyond these but before the long bridge that brings you back to the start is the Floral Library – not a collection of books but rather a carefully curated garden that displays different varieties of tulips side by side each spring. After the tulips have passed, they are replaced by hyacinth and other annuals that brighten the path.
3. Rock Creek Park
By far the largest of the city's parks, Rock Creek Park occupies over 1,750 acres that stretch in a column from the northern corner of the city to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Named for the creek that snakes its way down the length of the park, it is home to a huge variety of recreational opportunities. The main visitor center, Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium, is located near the center of the park, offering exhibits, kids' programming, hiking information, and planetarium shows.
The park has numerous nature trails, as well as recreational facilities that include a golf park, the Fitzgerald Tennis Center, an equestrian center, and soccer fields. There are numerous designated picnic areas throughout the park; many trails that allow cycling; and a variety of trails for different fitness levels, including a quarter-mile paved trail that is wheelchair accessible.
Points of interest include the picturesque Boulder Bridge; Mountain View Overlook; and Peirce Mill, an operational grist mill built in the early 19th century.
Address: 5200 Glover Road NW, Washington, D.C.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/rocr
4. Bartholdi Park (U.S. Botanic Garden)
Just off the eastern end of the National Mall, across the street from the glasshouses of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, Bartholdi Park displays the U.S. Botanic Garden's outdoor collections. The two-acre park was created in 1932 and underwent a complete renovation in 2016, resulting in a garden that is both more sustainable and accessible to visitors.
In addition to beautiful ornamentals, like roses and other perennials, the park has many leafy trees with benches to rest upon in their shade.
The central feature of Bartholdi Park is its cast-iron fountain, named the "Fountain of Light and Water" but more commonly referred to simply as Bartholdi Fountain. Created in 1875 by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the central sculpture weighs over 15 tons and stands at a height of 30 feet tall. It features three sea nymphs holding a basin lit by a dozen lamps, encircling the figures of children splashing the water that pours from a crenelated tower above them. At the nymphs' feet are turtles spitting water.
If you're in the neighborhood after dark, be sure to check out the fountain while it is illuminated.
Address: 245 First Street SW, Washington, D.C.
Official site: https://www.usbg.gov/bartholdi-park
5. Georgetown Waterfront Park
The Georgetown Waterfront Park occupies 10 acres along the banks of the Potomac River between 31st Street NW and 34th Street NW. It is a young park, opened in 2011, transforming a formerly industrial strip of land into a green space for all ages.
A series of accessible paths intersect throughout the park, with a dedicated thoroughfare for cyclists and skaters, which has a clear view of the water. The most popular spot in the park during summer is Percy Plaza, located on the eastern end of the park, home to a large spray fountain that welcomes kids of all ages to cool off on a hot day.
At the water's edge in front of the fountain are a set of steps, originally designed for rowing regatta spectators but equally enjoyed by visitors just there to watch life go by on the river. Located at the other end of the park is a more peaceful landmark, a labyrinth designed for contemplation.
The park is also home to several eco-conscious elements, including the Bio-Edge replacing old concrete retaining walls, rain gardens to prevent erosion, and lovely pollinator gardens to keep the bees at work. The park is well-lit and has benches and seating throughout.
Address: 3303 Water Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/places/georgetown-waterfront-park.htm
6. Dumbarton Oaks and Montrose Parks
Between Georgetown and Embassy Row sits an irregularly-shaped green space, its west half occupied by Dumbarton Oaks Park, and the east by Montrose Park. Both were once the estates of prominent landowners and are now open for the public to enjoy.
The gardens of Dumbarton Oaks were designed for Mrs. Mildred Bliss by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand in 1921. The gardens were split into two distinct areas, with a formal garden and a natural garden meant to emulate the countryside. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum sits near the park and houses a research library.
Montrose Park is home to the former estate of Richard Parrot, a wealthy rope-maker who purchased the plot in 1804. Here, he built a mansion in the Federal style and landscaped the property to include the Boxwood Gardens and the picturesque Ropewalk, a lovely ruler-straight tree-lined path that was actually used to manufacture rope. The mansion is no longer here, but the Ropewalk remains, and the park has tennis courts and a nice playground.
Rock Creek runs along the eastern border of these parks.
7. US National Arboretum
The National Arboretum spans 446 acres in Northeast Washington, home to flowers, trees, and everything in between. Those lucky enough to be visiting near the end of April will be stunned by the wall of color on the Glenn Dale Azalea Hillside, when tens of thousands of blossoms cover the slopes of Mount Hamilton.
Visitors will find blooming plants all year-round in the Asian Collections, with the camellias dominating from mid-autumn through early spring. The full collection covers 13 acres and has a Chinese Valley, Korean Hillside, and Japanese Woodland.
Trees of all sizes make their home here as well, the smallest living at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Starting with a gift of 53 trees from Japan, the collection now houses more than 300 expertly curated specimens. Outdoors, the Grove of State Trees includes groupings of trees representing all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, and the Gotelli Conifer Collection displays a variety of evergreens. The Arboretum also has the National Boxwood Collection, which features more than 180 taxa, a dogwood collection, and a lush fern valley.
The Arboretum is also home to many gardens, featuring historic roses, perennials, annuals, herbs, and wildflowers. This is also the site of the Washington Youth Garden, a working garden that hosts school groups and families as the kids work together to grow food while learning about gardening, nutrition, and horticultural science.
An unexpected landmark on the property is the National Capitol Columns – a set of Corinthian sandstone columns that once held up the dome of the Capitol Building until they were quickly replaced by larger, stronger ones that could support the full weight of the iron.
Official site: www.usna.usda.gov
8. Smithsonian National Zoological Park
No trip to D.C. is complete without a visit to the zoo, a free attraction that is fun for all ages. The zoo is located in the Woodley Park neighborhood just south of Rock Creek Park, covering a total of 163 acres and home to 2,700 animals representing 390 species. The National Zoo is best known for its successful giant panda breeding program, and these fuzzy residents are the star of the Asia Trail, also home to the clever red panda, clouded leopards, and sloth bears, among others.
Another popular section is the Elephant Trail, a habitat that is home to five Asian elephants and provides plenty of space for them to roam, play, and splash. The Great Cats exhibit includes African lions and Sumatran tigers; and the primates exhibit includes a Great Ape House, home to gorillas and orangutans; Gibbon Ridge, with its siamangs and white-cheeked gibbons; and Lemur Island, home to three varieties of the adorable critter. The zoo is also home to a reptile center, aviary, small mammal house, and a kids' farm.
Address: 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW Washington, D.C.
Official site: https://nationalzoo.si.edu